Wednesday 1 August 2012
The old man and the sixpence
She waited at the bus stop, lost in thoughts of what the day — the future in general, really — might have in store for her. It was a big risk this, and she knew it. The first day of her new job, a job she had left everything behind for — family, friends, house and memories — to cross the country and start anew. She stared across the road through the constant stream of traffic, trying to ease her nerves and remember the path to take from the bus set down through the city’s streets to her new workplace.
A shuffling sound she had initially mistaken for the whisper of wheel rubber kissing bitumen brought her head around to see an elderly man approaching along the footpath. His short, sliding steps were not fast, but he displayed the economy of movement and familiarity seen from someone accustomed to working with slightly faulty tools. She looked up at him as he turned to sit on the bench beside her. His face was wrinkled, skin loose from age, corners of the mouth held down by cheek muscles bound with the worn elastic of old age, and despite the thick strands of white hair poking out around his temples, she immediately knew he was balding underneath the grey, woollen flat cap he wore. Her eyes met his for the brief moment before she looked away and she was surprised to see vibrant blue irises and perfect whites — a startling contrast next to the grey radiating out of every other part of him; from his bushy eyebrows to the grey trousers he wore.
She resumed staring through the traffic across the road, watching the old man in her periphery as he reached into the pocket of his sports jacket. A moment later she heard a faint metallic ping and turned her eyes in time to see a coin tumbling through the air, to be caught deftly on the old man’s hand. From his closed fist, he turned it out onto the back of his other hand. The coin showed heads.
The old man looked at the coin and as his face broke into a smile, all assumptions she had made about his disposition vanished. His whole face seemed to glow as the wrinkles came together to accentuate his sparkling blue eyes.
“Heads,” he breathed. Her bus arrived.
The mornings were the same for the rest of the week. She would be seated at the bus stop and the old man would shuffle his way to sit beside her. Each day he sat, tossed the coin, and stared, smiling at the head facing skyward. Even when her bus was quite late — at one time arriving after the old man had departed — she did not see him toss the coin again. He simply stared at the head for a couple of minutes and returned the coin to a pocket inside his jacket.
By the third morning of the second week, she had taken to smiling politely when the old man arrived, and to her surprise, they had even engaged in some frivolous conversation. Rarely more than observations on the traffic or temperature, but more than she had ever had undertaken with a stranger before. The old man returned the smiles and formalities with comforting warmth, but silence always fell when he flipped the coin and smiled, whispering, “Heads.”
The last day of the second week was a miserable day. She sat at the bus stop, huddled into herself for warmth, umbrella pointed at the road to stop the spray from passing cars washing over her. The old man shuffled into his seat, draped in a rain coat that was already beginning to make a puddle underneath the bench.
“Great day for ducks,” he said, treating her to the smile she was really beginning to enjoy.
“Ducks probably want a place to hide today,” she responded with a laugh. “And it’s supposed to last all week. I’m not looking forward to that.”
“Is it really? Good heavens,” he began patting his chest, unbuttoning the saturated rain coat to reach in and retrieve the coin. The coin flew into the air, spinning so fast it looked like a translucent ball in flight. It came down and bounced off the edge of his waiting palm, rolling along the concrete to come to rest at her feet. She looked down to see a slightly corroded head staring up from the wet concrete and leaned down to pick it up.
“Heads,” she said, opening her hand to look at the coin. It was an unfamiliar head to the money she had in her own purse. “I don’t think I’ve seen one of these before.”
“That’s King George The Sixth’s head on a 1950 sixpence,” he said through another beaming smile, gently taking the coin from her outstretched palm. “I got that coin the very year it was minted. I won’t bore you with what that coin could have bought you back in those days.” He gave a dry chuckle.
“Oh, no. It’s fine. It’s a really pretty coin,” she said feeling a little embarrassed that he might detect boredom from her. She looked over to him again, but he appeared not have heard and his smiling eyes were locked on the coin in his palm.
The weeks flowed on and she found herself looking up the street each day, listening intently for the shuffling sound of the old man’s steps. She had eventually found the courage to introduce herself as Erin.
“Thomas, is my name dear,” was his reply. “But my friends call me Frank. You’re pretty, you can call me Frank.”
Their conversations became more casual, moving to topics outside of the easily observable. Erin had told him where she worked and Frank had revealed that his daily trips were to a returned serviceman’s club where he sat on the board and played lawn bowls, but every day, without fail, the conversation ended when Frank looked at the coin, head up, and smiled longingly at the long dead king.
Curiosity had flared for Erin on that very first day, but it had grown as time passed. Apart from the day when she had handled the coin, Frank had never mentioned it again, never hinted at why he tossed it each morning — and he had never tossed it more than once.
“Frank?” Erin asked one day as he was patting his pocket to pull out the coin. “May I ask— I mean, that coin. Every morning you flip it. Somehow it’s always been heads, but that’s beside my point. I guess, I just— Is there a reason?”
Frank’s hands stopped abruptly in the act of patting his pockets and he looked up at her. When she saw the faraway look in his eyes, she wished she could take the words back, she felt like she had crossed some line and upset this dear old man. “It’s my lucky coin, love. Just that.”
She nodded with a smile as Frank resumed his pocket search, eventually fetching the coin and beaming at it when it again came down heads. Erin let the sound of the traffic wash over her and stepped on the bus hoping she had not offended Frank with her prying.
Months passed, Erin and Frank continued to converse. She was sure that Frank was arriving at the bus stop much earlier; this was fine with her as it meant they had more time to talk. She found herself confiding in him about her fears for the future and what she had left behind. Frank was always willing to provide an ear or an encouraging smile. Erin discovered that Frank was a widower and his three children were spread across the country with children of their own, and Frank would proudly show the photos he kept in his wallet. They spoke continuously now, from Frank’s arrival until the toss of the coin.
One morning when he had the coin poised on his thumb ready to flick, Frank paused and turned to Erin. “Would you like to flip it?”
Erin started, this was not expected at all. “What if it doesn’t come down heads?” she questioned. “No, Frank, I couldn’t.”
“I trust you, love. Go on, toss it,” he reached out a shaky hand and Erin carefully took the coin from it. She felt her heart stop as she watched the coin in flight. She held her breath when she caught the cold metal and turned it out onto her waiting hand. “Heads!” she squealed.
“Heads,” said Frank, his smile adding euphoria to the relief she felt. “Sixty two years ago I got that coin at an ice cream shop — gone now — not far from here. I fell in love with the serving girl’s eyes. I came back here, to this bus stop, and tossed that coin. Heads, I go back to the shop and ask that pretty little thing out. Tails, I get on the bus and go home. Guess what showed?”
“I’m going to guess heads,” Erin said laughing. She found herself overcome with emotion at Frank’s willingness to finally share this story.
“Damn right it came out heads. I charged back to that ice cream shop and asked her to dinner. Six months later, that pretty little thing was my wife, Enid.” Frank took the coin back from Erin and returned it to his pocket, still smiling. “I’ve tossed the thing every day since Enid first said yes, and when it’s heads, I know it’s going to be another great day.”
“That’s amazing,” was all Erin could say. “It’s not a two-headed coin, is it?” she added with a laugh.
“No, it has a tails side.” Frank’s smile had gone and he was staring across the road. Erin wanted to ask about the tails but let the silence continue and boarded her bus to work.
Erin felt like she was going to meet a long lost friend every morning now, she had even found out Frank’s coffee order and started buying him one each day so they could chat over the steaming warmth of their cups. Frank was arriving at the bus stop at almost the same time as her now, and it was taking much longer for him to toss the coin and signal the conversation’s end.
“Frank?” she asked him one cold morning when the coffee was finished. “Has the coin ever come down tails?”
“Twice,” Frank said staring directly at her eyes. “The day my first born died, and the day I lost my Enid.”
“I’m so sorry, Frank,” the reply turning to a whisper at the last. Frank tossed the coin.
“Heads,” his smile returned.
A whole year had passed since she first met Frank at the bus stop. She knew his children and grandchildren by name and he was often asking after her family members by name. Everything that happened to Erin at home and work faded away in the hour she was now spending with Frank each morning.
One grey day, the morning after a party her work had thrown for her anniversary, Erin slept in and was running late. She found herself jogging from the coffee shop to the bus stop balancing the cups, trying to maximise the morning chat with Frank. She turned the corner and approached the empty bench. Frank was nowhere to be seen. She waited for her bus, turning at every gust of wind hoping to see him shuffling along the street. He did not come. He did not come the next day, or the day after that and Erin tried to remember if he had spoken of an upcoming holiday or visit from family.
On the fifth day without sign of Frank, she sat at the bus stop, umbrella again facing out to stop the driving rain, and caught a faint glimmer in a puddle formed by water running down the bus shelter. Walking over to take a look, she saw Frank’s sixpence, tails-up, looking out from the mud.
“Frank, I’m so sorry.”